The latest chapter in the singer-songwriter’s evolution is a work of immense beauty and scale…
Sam Beam has come a long way since introducing himself as a bedroom troubadour of uncommon eloquence on The Creek Drank The Cradle back in 2002. The music of the South Carolina native (a onetime film-studies professor) underwent a metamorphosis on each of his next three albums – Our Endless Numbered Days (2004), The Shepherd’s Dog (2007) and Kiss Each Other Clean (2011) – as he progressively expanded his musical palate while deftly retaining the intimacy and focus of his initial solo work. Beam’s ongoing collaborators, producer Brian Deck and arranger/keyboardist Rich Burger, share the responsibility for the albums’ forays into new sonic territory – most recently making subtle but extensive use of synthesizers on Kiss Each Other Clean.
These incremental enlargements and stylistic juxtapositions have led Beam and his cohorts to Ghost On Ghost, which deftly integrates a broad, transparent soundstage and a Swiss watchmaker’s precision with the whispery tenderness at its center. Helping them these songs to life is a studio band composed of topflight session players including the Dylan-certified rhythm section of drummer Brian Blade and bassist Tony Garnier, pedal steel player Paul Niehaus (Calexico), a horn section of downtown New York veterans and five string virtuosos.
The opening “Caught In The Briars” introduces the album’s key musical elements: gilded acoustic guitar plucks, a horn section evoking the creaminess of Van Morrison’s Woodstock-era band, a chugging soul groove from the rhythm section, silky female voices floating over Beam’s mellifluous tenor – and the record’s first musical surprise – a brief but intense free jazz coda. These motifs recur in various proportions and levels of intensity through the panoramic finale “Baby Center Stage”, with its wistful pedal steel, gilded brass and uplifting strings, which would’ve worked beautifully as the end-title theme for Beasts Of The Southern Wild. Between these painstakingly crafted bookends is a cornucopia of tones and textures as lush and haunting as Bon Iver’s LPs.
On previous Iron & Wine albums, a female voice has frequently shadowed Beam, and this element is ramped up to a central role on Ghost On Ghost. A female chorale formed by the multitracked voices of Josette Newsome and Carla Cook purrs seductive countermelodies that shift in character from AM gold (“The Desert Babbler”, “New Mexico’s No Breeze”) to Steely Dan-like lustrousness (“Singers and the Endless Song”), forming a modern-day Greek chorus commenting on Beam’s elliptical narratives and representing the yin to the brass section’s yang. Like the backing vocals, the horns shift modes to enhance the feels of particular songs, evoking a New Orleans funeral on the muted waltz “Winter Prayers”, a marching band on the churning, gospel-flavored “Singers and the Endless Song”, and a smoking bebop combo in the climactic passage of the album’s edgiest piece, the penultimate “Lovers’ Revolution”.
Beam’s music has always been quintessentially bittersweet – his earliest classic was “Naked As We Came”, a song about a couple wrestling with their mortality – but here the focus is on living fully in the moment. The most overt expression of his life-affirming state of mind is a song called, simply and unequivocally, “Joy”, which posits romantic love as a sort of earthly salvation without an iota of irony or ambiguity, while the last words Beam offers up on the record are “falling into the light”.
In its musical and emotional immersiveness, the album plays subjective tricks with time. The miniatures “Grass Windows” and the reprise of “Back In The Briars” possess such musical intricacy and emotional depth that they’re full-bodied experiences despite their brevity, while the glorious final sequence – the Southwestern travelogue “New Mexico’s No Breeze”, the eruptive “Lovers’ Revolution” and the resolving “Baby Center Stage”, accounting for nearly 16 of the LP’s 44 minutes – moves with such gripping coherence that it seems to go by in a snap. Ghost On Ghost insinuates itself into the listener’s consciousness like a film – one that demands to be watched over and over. Professor Beam has made his first art movie, and it’s a stunner.
Does this album tell a story?
When it’s time to go back in the studio, I see what songs I’ve got that could work together. On The Shepherd’s Dog, it was songs that had a dog in them, and the last record had a bunch of river images. This one was a little looser; the theme that kept popping up was this couple against the world, against each other, against their future or against circumstance. They almost feel like recurring characters in different cities or situations, and in hindsight it felt like the continuation of a narrative. So they weren’t formulated as a story but they were collected that way; more editorial than inspirational.
It seems to be about a road trip across America…
I’ve always tried to work with loaded subjects, whether it was biblical characters or American place names on this record. When you reference New Orleans, for example, there’s all kinds of baggage, good and bad. There’s history to these places, and it’s fertile territory to jump into.
Did you have any particular reference points?
This is an R&B record, but I didn’t want it to sound like one. So we talked about Nilsson Schmilsson, Ram – these homegrown records with human, frayed edges.
What inspired those free-jazz eruptions?
Contrast is fun. You don’t want people to get too comfortable, ’cause then they stop paying attention.
INTERVIEW: BUD SCOPPA
Photo credit: Craig Kief